People For the American Way

“Trumptastrophe”: Trump’s Dictatorial Tendencies and Disdain for Checks and Balances

News and Analysis
“Trumptastrophe”: Trump’s Dictatorial Tendencies and Disdain for Checks and Balances

Welcome to our weekly “Trumptastrophe” series that serves to remind us of the destructive policies, decisions, and actions we encountered during the Trump presidency and the threats that he and others in the MAGA movement still pose – and to keep those moments clear in our memory as we fight to defeat Republican extremists during the upcoming elections.

This week’s Trumptastrophe brings into focus how Trump and his MAGA allies intend to rid the federal government of anyone who stands in the way of their extreme agenda, and how MAGA Republicans would purge people from civil service much like Trump did to anyone who attempted to hold him accountable during his term in office:

On April 3, 2020, Trump notified congressional leaders that he intended to fire intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson. Atkinson was “the first to sound the alarm” in September 2019 about an urgent whistleblower complaint from an intelligence official about Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine’s president to launch an investigation of Trump’s rival Joe Biden.

Trump’s firing of the institutional watchdog was apparent retaliation for Atkinson’s actions setting in motion congressional investigations that led to Trump’s first impeachment. From POLITICO’s coverage at the time:

In an unusual rebuke of a president, Michael Horowitz, the chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said in a statement: “Inspector General Atkinson is known throughout the Inspector General community for his integrity, professionalism, and commitment to the rule of law and independent oversight. That includes his actions in handling the Ukraine whistleblower complaint, which the then Acting Director of National Intelligence stated in congressional testimony was done ‘by the book’ and consistent with the law.”

Trump had previously removed Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire “after his staff briefed members of Congress about Russian interference in the 2020 campaign,” POLITICO reported, noting that Maguire was replaced by Trump loyalist Richard Grenell.

Journalist Zach Beauchamp wrote at Vox that Trump’s firing of Atkinson was evidence that “Trump has declared war on the very idea of oversight,” noting that Trump had also attacked inspectors general with responsibility for oversight of the federal response to COVID-19:

The lesson from Tuesday is that Atkinson’s firing was not merely revenge for impeachment. It was a warning that, during the coronavirus crisis, Trump would not tolerate similarly vigorous oversight of his conduct. Official watchdogs are on notice: Doing your job too effectively could be career suicide.

Beauchamp identified the big-picture question that makes this episode so relevant to the current threat of Trump’s potential return to power in this year’s presidential election:

The president’s disdain for the concept of checks on his authority has been one of the most consistent throughlines of his presidency. But after Trump’s acquittal in his Senate impeachment trial, the president seems to have concluded that he could get away with even more brazen efforts to bend the government to his will. …

It was only a matter of time before Trump’s eye turned toward inspectors general, who are intrinsically opposed to Trump’s view of the government as working for him. These offices exist to conduct oversight over the department or institution they’re attached to — investigating illegality and wrongdoing to bring it to the public and Congress’s attention. Their sole reason for existing is to check the executive branch’s power and make sure its vast authority isn’t abused. …

Trump’s war against inspectors general, whether they are directly involved in watching his coronavirus response or otherwise, fits squarely into the latter category. The president’s campaign to turn the federal government into an instrument of his will, to make the bureaucracy his employees rather than the public’s, is being pursued while we’re busy being fearful in our homes.

This disdain for checks and balances, and the idea that Trump should have virtually dictatorial power to impose his will on every corner of the executive branch, is central to Project 2025, the battle plan by the Heritage Foundation and more than 100 right-wing and MAGA-movement groups to “take the reins of government” if Trump returns to power.

Grounded in a once-fringe constitutional theory of the “unitary executive,” Project 2025’s proponents openly declare their intention to snuff out any pockets of independence from the president’s agenda.

The detailed action plan being promoted by Project 2025 leaders would remove institutional safeguards against abuse of power, allowing a vengeance-focused Trump to turn federal agencies into weapons against his personal and political enemies, including the media.

It envisions a massive purge of professional civil service employees and their replacement with Trump loyalists who would be committed to gutting federal agencies from within and advancing the deregulatory agenda of the Koch dark-money networks and anti-government hardliners.

We know from Trump’s first term, and his illegal efforts to stay in office after losing, that he has no interest in playing by the rules or being held accountable for breaking them. He and his allies have demonstrated contempt for the institutionalists in the White House and Justice Department staff who refused to go along with Trump’s efforts to steal the election.

Trump and his political operatives have made it clear that if he returns to power, they won’t make the “mistake” of hiring people more loyal to the Constitution than to Trump or the MAGA movement. The Heritage Foundation has been recruiting right-wing ideological warriors on Steve Bannon’s War Room show and at places like the Conservative Political Action Conference. They hope to have 20,000 pre-approved loyalists ready to flood federal agencies and carry out Trump’s marching orders, whatever they may be. They are in effect paving a fast road to fascism. We have just months to stop them.

These are just some of the reasons we need YOU in this fight. So, find your favorite way to unwind after reading through this week’s recap, and then make a plan for how you will fight back this week, this month, this election cycle.


Authoritarianism, Trumptastrophe